I'll Always Love Pokemon Yellow For Letting Me Fix Ash Ketchum's Mistakes
Pokemon Yellow first released in Japan 21 years ago today. This means that Americans are likely to make all manner of jokes about how it's now finally old enough to buy its own beer, but here in the UK it would have been happily chugging down Stella for the last three years. Regardless of whether or not an inanimate Game Boy cartridge is old enough to consume alcohol, Pokemon Yellow Version: Special Pikachu Edition, to use its full and proper name, remains an utterly spellbinding adventure, even two decades and one year later.
As I'm sure you know, Pokemon Yellow was released as a special edition of sorts in the wake of the phenomenal success of Pokemon Red/Blue and went on to popularise the practice of a third "special" version for every subsequent Pokemon generation up to Black/White. The majority of the game's features remained exactly the same, but there were enough smart tweaks that made Pokemon Yellow a must-play title for any hardcore Pokemon fans out there - especially those who (like myself) had become thoroughly obsessed with the anime series.
Pokemon Yellow wouldn't launch in North America until October 19, 1999, and didn't actually come us here in the UK until June 16, 2000. It has to be said though, this ended being a pretty damn savvy move on the part of Nintendo and GameFreak. By the time Europe did get Pokemon Yellow, the franchise had well and truly dominated playgrounds everywhere, with the trading card game, toys, books, and anime series being all anyone could talk about. I know that, at least for people around my age who were perhaps just a little bit too young for Red/Blue at the time Pokemon Yellow became the definitive Pokemon adventure.
What really helped to make it special was the subtle references to the anime that Game Freak subtly baked in to the game, like the addition of Jessie and James, Nurse Joy, and Officer Jenny. Not exactly major additions, but certainly enough to help any young kids out there feel like they were immersed in the cartoon they'd been religiously watching in a way that Red/Blue didn't.
Perhaps the biggest change of all to Pokemon Yellow, and the one that really flung you into the stylish trainers of Ash Ketchum himself, was your choice of Starter Pokemon... in that you didn't actually get a choice. Just like in the beloved TV series, you would be unable to choose from Bulbsaur, Charmander, or Squirtle, and would instead find yourself forced into an alliance with a Pikachu who, it had to be said, wasn't all that useful to start with. Naturally, over time your bond with the little yellow fella would grow, helped no end by the fact Pikachu would actually follow you around the world outside of its ball - a remarkable feature at the time.
Pokemon Yellow differed from the anime series in one massively crucial way, though: you were not Ash Ketchum, even if your journey shared certain similarities. Unlike in the show, where Ash would continuously make baffling decisions, fail to actually earn his badges, and constantly hold himself back from becoming the very best that ever was, you were in control of the adventure this time, and being able to actively do things that Ash had consistently failed to do was a wildly cathartic experience for this young gamer.
The first time I realised this as a youngster was when I rolled up to the first Gym in Pewter City - Brock's Rock Gym. Would I, as Ash had in the series, attempt to take on Brock's rock-type Pokemon with my Pikachu? Of course not, because that would be intensely stupid. Watching that episode as a kid, I was fully aware how dumb Ash was being, and here I was with my own opportunity to conquer Pewter City Gym. I'd also like to point out that, unlike Ash, I never dragged my Pikachu around with a rope.
Anyway, safe in the knowledge that I knew my shit better than that other clown from Pallet Town, I headed just outside the city limits and caught myself a Nidoran. I leveled that Nidoran up and taught it Double Kick. Armed with my hard as nails Nidoran and my trusty Pikachu, we marched into Brock's Gym and slapped his Pokemon around like the gravelly bastards they were. My Pikachu never even had to taste the conflict.
This is, of course, something that any of the kids who played Red/Blue might well have opted to do if they'd started the game with a Charmander, so I'm certainly not pretending it's some brand new technique that made me the best trainer in the world. What I am saying is that it provided me an opportunity to prove that I was a better trainer than the kid I was watching on TV every week, and that felt pretty cool. In Red/Blue, you could choose your own Starter, but in Yellow you had to prove that you knew how to work with a Pikachu, and that first gym does serve as a genuinely tough test.
As the game went on, I was afforded even more chances to do all the things Ash never did for some reason, like build a balanced team of Pokemon, including the fully-evolved forms of all three Starter Pokemon, which is something I really like about Pokemon Yellow, even if an argument could be made that having Charizard, Venusaur, and Blastoise makes the game a touch too easy.
I was also able to consistently destroy my rival's Pokemon every time the spiky haired tit tried to step to me, and actually earn all eight of my badges through battle, rather than thanks to some dumbass loopholes. On top of that, I managed to force Team Rocket to disband and destroy the Elite Four with my beloved lineup of Pokemon, earning my place as League Champion in the process - two things Ash's incompetent ass never managed to do. Oh, and do you think I'm gonna come face to face with Mewtwo and just let him go? Nah mate. I lobbed that Master Ball right at his freaky grey face and made him mine.
Again, these were all things you could do in Pokemon Red/Blue, sure, but to this anime-obsessed seven year old, Pokemon Yellow really did make me feel like I was playing through the anime, which actively helped me to feel like I was fixing Ash Ketchum's many, many mistakes - mistakes that used to frustrate me to no end as a kid. I'll always love Pokemon Yellow for giving me that chance.